CMJ Diary: The Good, The Bad, and The Grungy

Last week, the annual CMJ Music Marathon descended on the East Village and its immediate surroundings. Todd Olmstead and Laurie Kamens valiantly went a week without sleeping to bring you the highlights, the low-lights, and the psychedelic light shows, too.

cmjdumdum Dum Dum Girls

Tuesday, Oct. 18

Wild Flag at Bowery Ballroom
Wild Flag is a sort of super-group composed of Carrie Brownstein and Janet Weiss from Sleater-Kinney; Mary Timony, former front woman of Helium; and keyboardist Rebecca Cole of The Minders. Their years of musicianship were apparent as the band brought each song to the musical brink only to reel it back in again. All the while, Ms. Timony’s entrancing femme-fatale vocals traded off with Ms. Brownstein’s Patti Smith-like guttural sounds and punk-rock screams. Ms. Brownstein, an electric presence, played her guitar over her pelvis in a phallic gesture to match any 80s hair rocker, strutting around like a mix between Mick Jagger and Iggy Pop. Though the all-female ensemble has roots in the era of post-punk and the riot grrrl movement, the quartet’s attack riffs and lengthy guitar solos were pure machismo, proving that girls can still rock.  –L.K.

Eleanor Friedberger at Bowery Ballroom
Eleanor Friedberger’s staccato, matter-of-fact storytelling stood out from all the other performances at CMJ. Known as a member of the indie rock duo the Fiery Furnaces, her solo material pulls no punches. Her husky voice and straightforward delivery lent an attention-grabbing importance to lyrics about her life in Brooklyn and on the West Coast. –L.K.

Wednesday, Oct. 19

Country Mice at Dominion

cmjcountry Country Mice

This foursome of rural Kansas transplants make weathered, indie rock songs in the vein of Centro-matic, but with twice the number of guitar solos. The songs on their debut album, “Twister,” are so consistently solid, you might breeze through thinking there are no gems. But listen again, and you’ll find that “Ghost” is a sleeper candidate for one of Brooklyn’s jams of the year. A 1:00 p.m. set attended by about 15 people didn’t hamper them in the slightest. –T.O.

Lord Huron at The Living Room
Though Lord Huron was one of the weekend’s buzz bands, their music proved to be low-calorie tropical bop. The songs were dull, too long, and without much substance.  –T.O.

ARMS at Pianos
The New York City quartet threw itself into four-minute pop opuses with unchained enthusiasm, wrangling pounding rhythms and soaring vocal harmonies into elegant numbers that felt nostalgic without being backwards-facing. –T.O.

Miracles of Modern Science at Pianos
Don’t mistake this band for something wimpy, just because it’s composed of chamber instruments. The mix of violin, cello, and stand-up bass combined with mandolin and drums fosters some serious power. Though Miracles of Modern Science takes the time to explore the nuances of their string instruments, their chug ‘n’ stomp live show made for propulsive rock grounded in punk ethos. –T.O.

Thursday, Oct. 20

J. Mascis at Mercury Lounge

cmjmascis J. Mascis

The former Dinosaur Jr. front man was one of the biggest and most well-established names playing this year’s festival. Looking every bit the holdover from the 90s grunge area, Mr. Mascis, now 45, took the stage wearing a t-shirt and jeans, his long silver-white hair hanging like a curtain around his face. He strummed an acoustic guitar that, despite being every bit as weathered as its owner, proved flawlessly adept in executing new solo material that sounded downright backwoodsy compared to the pealing electric guitars of Dinosaur Jr.  –L.K.

Purity Ring at Webster Hell
The buzzed-about spin-off project from New York electronic band Gobble Gobble pairs singer Megan James’s delicate vocals with Corin Riddick’s arduous electronic beats. Playing the “binary,” a homemade instrument that looks like a system of interconnected pipes ending in light bulbs, Mr. Roddick created and manipulated piercing electronic sounds along with fragmented, pulsing electronic beats that were enough to give you a headache. Meanwhile, Ms. James sang in her angelic soprano and performed dance moves that looked more like calisthenics. The end result was something closer to conceptual art than the sort of music you’d want to add to our playlist. –L.K.

Dum Dum Girls at Bowery Ballroom
Wearing short black dresses with patterned tights, the Dum Dum Girls (part of the Subpop Records showcase) showed a feline poise resembling an updated version of Robert Palmer’s “Addicted to Love” video. The all-female quartet delivered quick and dirty rock with straight-faced, disaffected grace. Lead singer Dee Dee Penny’s sexy siren call dragged listeners down to the depths of the muddied 4-minute garage rock songs. The closing number, a cover of The Smiths’ “There Is A Light That Never Goes Out,” transformed Morrisey’s morose love song into a fast-paced seductive purr. –L.K.

Gem Club at Mercury Lounge

cmjgemclub Gem Club

This Boston group makes extremely delicate music on piano and cello. Their set was at first marred by the chatter of a half-full room, but 30 minutes later, the crowd had gone dead silent. The slow, droning songs have the effect of lulling you into rapt attention, and are probably all the better when you’re in bed with a blanket pulled up to your chin. –T.O.

Jacuzzi Boys at Mercury Lounge

cmjjacuzzi Jacuzzi Boys

Another CMJ show, another garage rock band: Three-chord Ramones revival rock just doesn’t seem to be going away. Jacuzzi Boys score for fun, but strike out for every song sounding exactly the same. The repetition crept into the between-song banter, too: singer Gabriel Alcala intoned “Thank you so much!” exactly the same way each time, minus the occasional “this song is about baseball!” –T.O.

Mr. Dream at Cake Shop
Mr. Dream’s songs ride dangerously close to the thud of early Nirvana and the caterwaul of the Pixies, but if their album comes off sounding academic, their “big, dumb rock songs” (as they described them during a show this weekend) really come alive during performances. Anyone who closed their eyes for a moment at Cake Shop might have found themselves transported to some basement in Aberdeen in the late 80s. –T.O.

Friday, Oct. 21

Neon Indian at Webster Hall

cmjneonindian Neon Indian

Though Alan Palomo (a.k..a. Neon Indian) is only 23, he’s a festival veteran compared to many of the other bands playing CMJ. His 80s-inspired electro-pop songs resembled a ColecoVision soundtrack, with electric guitars cutting through the pixilated melodies like a laser beam. Mr. Palomo’s holographic vocals and dreamy, far-out sound were complimented perfectly by his onstage light show, which, along with swirling video projections, created the feeling of being aboard a spaceship in a low-budget sci-fi movie. –L.K.

Saturday, Oct. 22

EMA at Webster Hall
Erika M. Anderson (formerly of the experimental folk band Gowns) released her solo album, “Past Life Martyred Saints,” earlier this year as EMA. The acclaimed album combines grungy stripped-down rock with lyrics about the tumultuous break-up of Ms. Anderson’s band and personal relationships. On Saturday, the intimacy in Ms. Anderson’s music was lost as she sang from beneath a mop of jagged blond hair that fell over her eyes. Whereas her album takes the listener in as a trusted friend, EMA’s live performance consisted of simplistic guitar lines without any sense of lyrical feeling. –L.K

Caveman at Fontana’s

cmjcaveman Caveman

Caveman was one of the hardest working bands during CMJ, playing ten shows over the course of four days. On Saturday, they seemed weary, and their voices sounded stretched. Or maybe they were just drunk, as the singer confided mid-set. Still, their loping cuts maintained their rich, enveloping quality – even on melodic tracks like “Decide,” the waves of sound wash right over you. –T.O.

Hands at Fontana’s

cmjhands Hands

This southern California quintet used an impressive array of electronics and instruments to perform layered, rhythmic pop songs. The songcraft was solid enough to get one swaying to the beat, but at the end of the day, Hands may just be adding too much to the mix.  –T.O.

Did you see any shows last week? Tell us about them in the comments.